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Faith and the Marketplace--Solidarity of The Worker and the Consumer  

by Fr. John Rausch

The confirmation class of St. Clare’s Church, Berea, Ky., sponsored a Christmas bazaar to help community organizations. They sold Hospice Angels for a $20 donation, Habitat for Humanity house pins for $12 and a variety of small items for Peace Craft, an organization that markets directly for self-help groups in places like Peru, the Philippines, India and Honduras.

Within an hour after Sunday Mass the eager kids marketed over $1,000 of merchandise by offering parishioners the opportunity to use their purchasing power to strengthen communities around the world. Down the street, a half-mile away, the local Wal-Mart also affects communities around the world. Larger than Sears, Target and Kmart combined, Wal-Mart with 3,400 stores on four continents, boasted sales in 1997 of $118 billion. Its enormous buying power affects suppliers in Third World countries who sew much of the apparel that hangs on the racks in its local stores. With suppliers stretching around the globe, from Mexico to Indonesia to China, Wal-Mart faces a formidable task of monitoring the factory conditions of those suppliers and their subcontractors.

The National Labor Committee (275 7th Ave., 15th floor, NY, NY 10001, 212-242-3002), a non-profit group that monitors sweatshop conditions in the U.S. and abroad, reports finding deplorable conditions in factories sewing garments for Wal-Mart. In China, where Wal-Mart contracts sewing in 700 to 1,000 factories, NLC routinely discovers wage rates between 20 cents and 35 cents an hour with 12 hour shifts, 7 days a week. In Honduras young women between 17 and 25, earning 31 cents an hour with only two bathroom breaks a day, suffer mental and sexual harassment in order to help feed their families. While Wal-Mart has a Code of Conduct, NLC found few workers who knew about it. Wal-Mart’s internal controls appear lax.

NLC has initiated the Corporate Disclosure: People’s Right to Know campaign asking Wal-Mart to reveal the locations of factories that sew their goods so non-governmental organizations and independent human rights groups can monitor the working conditions. Acting as a globally responsible merchant demands this.

The global economy, with its mobility of capital, network of subcontractors and veil of secrecy, lacks an umpire. There exists no referee on the international scene to call a foul in terms of workers or the environment. Until the global economy matures and establishes a mechanism to guarantee human and creation rights, standards remain voluntary.

Catholic social teaching addresses the relationship between worker and consumer through the principle of solidarity, which focuses on the unity of the human family and the need to care about one another in an interdependent world. Pope Paul VI wrote in Populorum Progressio about the need to build a more humane world community "where the progress of some is not bought at the expense of others." The consumer in a wealthier country must demand respect for the worker in a poorer country.

A retailing behemoth like Wal-Mart could disregard the Corporate Disclosure Campaign as a mere annoyance, a pesky fly buzzing around its stores. Or, as customers of conscience write letters, make phone calls and pass to cashiers printed cards opposing sweatshops, Wal-Mart management could make a moral statement by cooperating with independent monitors. After nearly 30 years of innovative marketing, Wal-Mart might be overlooking a new trend discovered by the kids up the street at St. Clare’s: people want to buy things when they know it helps others.

.Read other articles of spiritual enlightenment in the February 1999 edition of The San Francisco Charismatics or return to the Main Menu by clicking on the blue. Fr. John Rausch, a Glenmary priest, teaches at the Appalachian Ministries Educational Resource Center, Berea, Ky. His column appears monthly in many Catholic journals and in ours beginning this month, courtesy of the Friends of the Good News. When you purchase books, videos, etc. from Amazon.com this site, we receive a referral fee from them that support the work of the Friends of the Good News.